"To say the findings are troubling is putting it mildly, though they are findings that will be familiar to many people." Photo: Getty
Like most card-carrying Sex & The City fans, the memory - and agony - of Carrie’s relationship with aspiring novelist Jack Berger is still as raw as ever. (So raw, in fact, that when I once saw the actor who portrayed him, Ron Livingston, at the supermarket I had to stop myself from giving “Berger” a hysterical dressing down in the pasta aisle “for what you did to Carrie!!”)
That story arc, in which Berger’s simmering resentment of Carrie’s success as a writer just as his grip on his own publishing contract is slipping eventually reached the point where he broke up with her via a Post-It Note, is echoed in research released this past week by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In which it was found that heterosexual men are far more threatened by their partner’s success than women are when the roles are reversed.
The study, Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner’s Success or Failure, conducted experiments with 896 people in heterosexual relationships in order to test the theory that men’s self-esteem would take a beating if their partner’s successes - however they interpret that concept - outshone their own.
Berger and Carrie in happier, pre-Post-It Note times.
Whether their partner’s success was financial, academic, social or otherwise, and even if it had nothing to do with something the men were themselves striving towards, the men studied inevitably felt their own self-esteem plummet. As the study noted, “The lack of difference lends some support to the idea that men interpret ‘my partner is successful’ as ‘my partner is more successful than me’.”
Crucially, the men only rated their implicit self-esteem as falling (“the test for implicit, or subconscious, self-esteem involved measuring how quickly they associated positive or negative words with the word ‘me’”) as opposed to their explicit self-esteem: “[M]en didn’t explicitly report feeling worse about themselves, whether because they didn’t consciously notice or because they didn’t want to portray themselves as insecure jerks, we cannot say,” Julie Beck writes in The Atlantic.
To say the findings are troubling is putting it mildly, though they are findings that will be familiar to many people.
Like so many unhelpful behaviours, it’s also likely that such resentment is born out of outmoded gender expectations: men believing they have to be the breadwinner, and consequently feeling emasculated or inadequate when they perceive themselves to be usurped by their partner’s successes. “There are strong gender stereotypes where men are typically associated with strength, competence, and intelligence; a partner’s success, especially if it is construed as an own failure, is not compatible with the stereotype and could negatively impact self-esteem,” the study notes.
You could even argue that the study’s female participants’ reporting that they’d celebrate their partner’s successes plays into this; the woman isn’t meant to compete with her mate, rather to sit back and applaud him. (Think of Carrie’s demented applauding of every minute detail in Berger’s book in a desperate attempt to soothe his dented ego.)
There’s a darker side to the findings, as Slate’s Amanda Marcotte explores in her reaction to the study: “The results also might speak to the roots of some domestic abuse, as men who have the greatest need to ‘win’ the relationship could be more motivated to undermine and control their partners. (The study isn't suggesting this—I am.) But these findings should also be troubling to men. Feeling insecure and competitive with your partner is no way to live. The researchers suggest that these kinds of feelings might be mediated by relearning how to think about gender roles, i.e. becoming more feminist.”
And if your man moves from sulking to bulk purchasing Post-It Notes, run for the hills.